Colin Chapman (1928 - 1982)

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Colin Chapman (1928 - 1982)

Colin ChapmanColin Chapman.
It could be argued that Colin Chapman did more to establish Britain as the home of international motor racing during the 1960's and 1970's than any other single person, with the possible exception of John Cooper, who got in first with the Cooper racing cars, but failed to keep pace with the astonishing versatility of the designs Colin Chapman produced for Lotus.

Born in 1928, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman's motorised career followed the almost classic pattern of those destined for great things in the motoring field. His early experience was with motor cycles, but after a disastrous accident with a 350 Panther, when he hit a taxi, he moved on to four wheels via a 1937 Morris 8 donated by anxious parents.

The Morris was used to commute to and from London University where he was studying engineering and in 1946, along with a friend, Colin Dare, he began dealing in used cars. Cars were very scarce after the war and the pair began notching up some lucrative deals. However, when the petrol ration was cancelled in 1947, the business crashed badly as they had a large stock on their hands which had to be sold at a loss.

Turning The 1930 Austin 7 Saloon Into A Special, And Calling It A Lotus

However, one car was retained and Chapman decided to turn this 1930 Austin 7 saloon into a special. Many modifications were made and, after much work, the new car was ready, but Chapman did not want yet another Austin special so, when he re-registered the car, it was called a Lotus. Despite all this activity, Chapman successfully entered his exams in 1948, emerging with the letters BSc (Eng) after his name.

He occupied his time after leaving university in devising a Mk 2 Lotus, which would be more sophisticated than Mk 1, but before it was finished National Service loomed and he joined the RAF. Since he had already flown for 35 hours in the University Air Squadron, he was selected for flying training. Building of Mk 2 was slowed by his long absences, but it was finally completed and this Ford powered car took part in many trials, driving tests and even races.

After two years in the RAF, Chapman was ready to be commissioned as a pilot, but he was required to sign on for five years and, as he disliked service life, he opted for civvy street, where he took a job with a construction firm. Chapman's passion for motoring and especially motor racing led him rapidly away from civil engineering, so, in 1952, he formed Lotus Engineering-on a part time basis, as he was now employed by the British Aluminium Company The cars became lighter and more sophisticated and soon the Mk 6, which was the first full-production model, was winning races all over Britain.

Chapman was joined at Lotus by Mike Costin, who was employed at the de Havilland aircraft factory, and after several financial problems, the firm eventually got off the ground as a full time company. Chapman was soon demonstrating his prowess as an innovator and the humble parentage of his cars began slowly to disappear. By 1954, the aerodynamic Mk 8 model, with body designed by Mike Costin's brother Frank, was in production and everyone in the motor-racing world realised that a genius was in their midst. The little Mk 8 and successive Mk 9, 10 and J1 models were often powered by inexpensive engines, yet they invariably beat cars of twice the capacity.

Knowing His Driving Limitations

Chapman had perfected the space-frame chassis, which saved a lot of weight and also endowed the cars with considerable strength. For a long time, his competitors stuck to conventional ladder-type chassis frames and other heavy components, which gave the fleet little Lotus models a distinct advantage. Chapman's genius was soon utilised by other members of the motor-racing fraternity and he was called in to advise on chassis design, both by BRM and by Vanwall. Chapman had proved to be a top-class racing driver as well as designer and was able to mix it in sports cars with drivers like Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn, but when, as a reward for designing the Vanwall, he was given a drive in the car in the French Grand Prix at Reims, he damaged the car in practice and soon decided that he had reached his limits as a driver, so he retired to concentrate on building and designing cars.

Many of Chapmari's most successful cars were designed around the effective little Coventry-Climax 'fire-pump' engine, which combined low weight with high specific power outputs. This enabled Chapman to build the lightest possible cars and he stuck with Climax engines until that company pulled out of building racing engines. Success did not accompany all of Chapman's designs and his first serious road car, the Elite, was something of a technical failure. The concept of an all-glass-fibre body/chassis unit was brilliant, but the material did not have sufficient strength and the metal components pulled away from or pushed through the glassfibre with inevitable results.

Later versions, though, were improved, but the price was too high. In his racing cars, too, he had occasional failures, notably the Mk 17 sports car which had a reputation for poor handling. When it became obvious that a mid-engine location was the best compromise for a racing car, Chapman did not follow suit, with the result that his first single seater, the Mk 12 Formula Two car, and the subsequent Mk 16 Formula One car were comparative failures, and it was not until the Mk 18 mid-engined model was produced in 1959 that success came in single seater racing.

Not Wanting To Copy John Cooper

Chapman later told motoring journalists that he knew he should have built a rear-engined car, but he did not want to be accused of copying John Cooper! Coincident with the Mk 18, Colin Chapman met Jim Clark, the quiet border farmer from Scotland, who showed an almost unbelievable natural talent at the wheel of a racing car. The two men developed a complete understanding and together they achieved inumerable successes. The monocoque Lotus 25 Formula One car was the biggest single step forward for many years and Clark took full advantage of its potential.

After finishing 1962 as runner-up to Graham Hill, Clark won the World Championship for Lotus in 1963, with a record seven wins in the season. Two years later he was Champion again, with six more first places. The two invaded Indianapolis and carried off the coveted 500 at only their third attempt. The tiny mid-engined Lotus-Ford forced the Indianapolis establishment to revise completely their ideas on racing-car design. Chapman formed an early liaison with the Ford Motor Company, when he was commissioned to build a Lotus version of the Ford Cortina.

This car was troublesome, but it led to the development of the Lotus-Ford twin-cam engine which would remain in production for many years. The contact with Ford proved beneficial in 1966, when it seemed that Lotus would be forced out of Formula One racing because they had no 3-litre unit for the new Formula. Ford gave £100,000 to Keith Duckworth of Cosworth to design and build a new engine for Lotus. Chapman excelled himself with the design of the new car to take this engine, as it was designed to use the engine as part of the chassis.

As his business expanded Chapman passed responsibility for design and development of both road and racing cars to other people, but he still retained overall control and was a regular attender at race meetings. The Lotus factory was moved to Norfolk in 1966 and production of Elan, Europa and Plus 2 models expanded to meet world-wide demand. The introduction of the Elite, Eclat and Esprit luxury models marked a new direction for the company.

The Lotus 49 Takes Out The Dutch Grand Prix

But Chapmans heart was at the race track, and with the light and attractive Lotus 49 his company would take out the Dutch Grand Prix in the hands of Jim Clark on its first outing in 1967, but a year later Clark was dead and Chapman's future in motor racing looked uncertain. However, he decided to continue and Graham Hill rewarded Chapman nearly retired from racing, but Emerson Fittipaldi re- kindled his enthusiasm and the brilliant Lotus 72 was given a new lease of life, winning another Championship for Chapman's cars in 1972.

Inspired by Jim Hall, Chapman introduced aerodynamics into the first-rank of Formula One car design. He popularized the concept of positive aerodynamic downforce, through the addition of front and rear wings. Early efforts were mounted 3 feet (0.91 m) or so above the car, in order to operate in 'clean air' (i.e. air that would not otherwise be disturbed by the passage of the car). However the thin supporting struts failed regularly, obliging the FIA to require the wings to be attached directly to the bodywork. He also originated the movement of radiators away from the front of the car, to decrease frontal area and, thus, drag at speed. These concepts also remain features of high performance racing cars today.

Chapman, working with Tony Rudd and Peter Wright, pioneered the first Formula One use of "ground effect", where a partial vacuum was created under the car by use of venturis, generating suction (downforce) which held it securely to the road whilst cornering. Modern Formula One cars generate enough downforce (now generated by wings as well as ground effect created by the shape of the under-tray and diffuser, along with the radiator ducting) that they could theoretically be driven on a ceiling once they reach about 100 mph (160 km/h). Initially this technique utilized sliding "skirts" which made contact with the ground to keep the area of low pressure isolated.

The Lotus 79

Chapman's next development was a car that generated all of its downforce through ground effects, eliminating wings and the drag that they introduce at high speed. The culmination of this effort, the Lotus 79, dominated the 1978 championship. However, skirts were eventually banned, because the skirt could be damaged, (for example, from driving over a kerb), and downforce would be lost and the car could then become unstable. The FIA made moves to eliminate ground effects in Formula One, by requiring flat bottom cars from 1983 (eliminating venturis) and raising the minimum ride height of the cars from 1981. Of course, the car designers have managed to get back much of that downforce through other means, aided by extensive wind tunnel testing.

One of his last major technical innovations was a dual-chassis Formula One car, the Lotus 88 in 1981. For ground effects of that era to function most efficiently, the aerodynamic surfaces needed to be precisely located and this led to the chassis being very stiffly sprung. However, this was very punishing to the driver, resulting in driver fatigue. To get around this, Chapman introduced a car with two chassis. One chassis (where the driver would sit) was softly sprung. The other chassis (where the skirts and such were located) was stiffly sprung. Unfortunately, although the car passed scrutineering at a couple of races, it was protested by other teams and was never allowed to run. Under these circumstances, the car was never developed, so racing enthusiasts would never learn if the idea could have worked.

During his life, Chapman received almost as much criticism as acclaim in his career. He was accused of building flimsy racing cars which broke down too frequently or lost vital components, he was accused of building unreliable road cars, business associates accused him of being a ruthless bargainer and racing drivers who lost their places in the Lotus team accused him of being unsympathetic. Whatever the truth of these criticisms, the fact remains that Chapman was one of the great innovators. He had become disillusioned after having so many of his innovations outlawed by racing authorities, and it is said that he had lost interest in Forumula One - but the day he died, Team Lotus was testing the first Formula One car with active suspension, which eventually made its debut with the Lotus 99T in 1987.
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